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don't bother, at least not with the ebook version

don’t bother, at least not with the ebook version

Change is the only certainty, and the world of books (made of paper), booksellers and publishers is having this little apothegm rubbed painfully in its face at present, it seems to me, and, as a person who loves books but has always been poor as a church-mouse, I feel rather caught in the middle of all this transition, and pulled more or less equally in the directions of tradition and transformation.

After all, the choice between e-books and the traditional version is a little more fraught than that between CDs (please note – no fucking apostrophe) and MP3 downloads. Books don’t just go back to the days of Gutenberg and Caxton, or the movable type that was used in Korea from at least the thirteenth century. The library of Alexandria, founded well over 2000 years ago by the Ptolemaic dynasty (Ptolemy Soter, the ‘illegitimate’ son of Philip of Macedon, half-brother and general of Alexander the Great,  and subsequent ruler of Egypt, was probably its originator) is said to have contained some 500,000 papyrus scrolls, all now lost to history. That’s one advantage of e-books; they render book-burnings obsolete.

So writing on paper, or its antecedents, has a long and proud history, and is now being threatened for the first time in millennia by new technology. So I’ve been feeling this weight of history when ducking into the odd bookshop lately. I’ve been a bookshop-haunter for forty years, and it’s pretty obvious that they’re going through tough times now. As with CDs, makeshift shops full of cheap editions are cropping up here and there, then just as suddenly disappearing when the number of buyers drops off. I was in one the other day, and held in my hand a prettily-packaged volume of Ovid, called The Art of Love, selling for a mere $7. It was apparently an amalgamation of two collections, Amores and Ars Amatoria, and a ridiculous bargain, but even that tiny amount gave me pause. I’d always wanted to explore Ovid’s works on love, because of their influence on Shakespeare, but I’ve been so caught up with reading sciencey stuff lately, almost to the point of addiction, and then it occurred to me that, with my new Kindle, I could probably download all of Ovid’s works for free…

I ended up buying three cheap books, one of them sciencey. The lab rat chronicles: a neuroscientist reveals life lessons from the planet’s most successful mammals comes with a recommendation from Patricia Churchland, no less, and I suspect that such books aren’t available through Kindle, at least not at anything less than $10, the price I paid. Ok I’ve just checked, and it is available, at exactly the same price. The 2 other books I bought were God is not one: the eight rival religions that run the world and why their differences matter, by Stephen Prothero ($10), and How to win a cosmic war: confronting radical religion, by Reza Aslan ($8). Interestingly, the Prothero book isn’t available on Amazon, but the Aslan one is, for $10. So there are still bargains to be had offline. However Amazon is always reducing its prices, as books move from ‘must read-nows’ to ‘has-beens’. That’s happening in the bookstores too, of course, but not at the same rate. Then again, though you’re unlikely to get hold of the complete works of Plato (Benjamin Jowett translation, presumably with his excellent introductions) in a second-hand bookshop for a dollar – the going Amazon price – there are book exchanges (there’s one in the caf around the corner from me) where you can pick up one of an admittedly limited selection of books for free, with the idea that you exchange it for something of your own, honour bound.

So I weigh the pros and cons and ponder the senses of guilt and obligation. The kindle is light and convenient, and easy to read in bed. My eyesight is poor, so I appreciate a backlit screen as opposed to the foxed and mouldering pages of a second-hand text, though I wonder if the light is damaging my eyes even more. On the other hand its caveat emptor with some of these e-books. One of the first ones I bought (okay it was free so I’m not really allowed to complain) was A very brief history of the first crusade, by one Mark Black. Brief it was, more of a pamphlet than a book. I have a copy of Christopher Tyerman’s monumental history of the crusades on my shelves, but I gave up on it a few years back after about 200 pages = too many Count Theobalds and Sir Roberts, too many family connections and names and names and names, I felt as confused as any medieval plebeian might have felt when caught up in the thick of it, but without the concentration of the mind an imminent death would’ve usefully brought on. So I thought this brief history might offer a clearer view, but I was more than disappointed. I suspect everything in it was lifted from Tyerman’s book, so it told me nothing new. What was worse, though, was that the grammar was often hilariously bad. I have a feeling it wasn’t actually edited by a human being. Possibly the text was used as an experimental test case for robotic proofreading. A black mark for Mark Black, whose name, I note, crops up for many of these ‘brief histories’, mostly unrelated to each other. Anyway, an odd experience.

So I’m not entirely convinced of the new reading technology, though the possibilities are obvious, and it’s clearly a mode still in its infancy. Hopefully the two ways of packaging good reading material will live side by side for a while to come, and I look forward to accessing both, long into the future.

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Written by stewart henderson

May 24, 2013 at 8:27 pm

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